Digital Transformation of Cooking

Like most of you did or probably will, I did struggle to find a topic to discuss or to feel like I had any information to expertly share with you all, but stumbled upon this as I was trying to figure out what to do for dinner this week. In this post, I will be going through a bit of a road map about how cooking, baking, and recipe-sharing has become both easier and harder than passing down top-secret family recipes. 

Example of a more accessible recipe book

1400’s-1800’s  

Almost obviously, food was a status symbol throughout history. Access to multiple spices, ingredients, and simply having enough food was a way for a family to establish themselves between the haves and have nots (check out this Atlantic article for more). Cookbooks became “available” in the 15th and 16th centuries, but this relied on families having both the money to pay for them and the ability to read them. During this time, there were books labeled in specific ways (stately, noble, high class cooking) and that were priced 20 times more expensive than some of the “For everyone” cookbooks that were still inaccessible. These would often use ingredients not available to everyone. 

Published in 1931, Irma S Rombauer: The Joy of Cooking A Compilation of Reliable Recipes with a Casual Culinary Chat

1900’s 

People were becoming more creative with food out of necessity. The Great Depression and then the rations during World War II forced people to do more with less. Recipes and cookbooks were created and passed around to help people repurpose leftovers to make meals last longer. There are some WILD recipes created during this time that a man on TikTok has dedicated himself to attempting, highly recommend checking out the tomato soup cake post. 

Julia Child in 1978

1950’s

Things dramatically improved post World War II and homes were now able to keep things colder for longer with the mass production of the refrigerator, which made them available for 80 % of homes by the 1950’s. Cookbooks were mass produced as well, but now cooking shows also became available. Long before the Food Network, Julia Child brought French cuisine to the TV screen of viewers in the US in 1963. This ~digital transformation~ helped to democratize what was seen as high quality cooking and make it available to everyone who had TVs in their home. The Food Network would begin in 1993, discussing not specifically recipes, but centering the narrative around chefs and their businesses. Julia Child began this kind of cooking show, helping to make French cuisine in particular but cooking in general more accessible to the watchers, especially being on the WGBH channel, a public TV station. 

While not an online recipe, my personal favorite recipe from the early 2000’s.

2000’s 

Much like the rest of the world, things became highly disrupted by the internet and the sudden increase in information available to everyone with a computer. Recipes became widely available, but in simple formats without much flair. Like most websites at the time, it was not uncommon for there to be few pictures and questionable font choices. It was not a monetized enterprise the way it currently exists. 

The expected quality of photos on recipe websites.

2010’s 

With the advent of social media, cookies (for the website, but we love a good pun), and sponsored posts from influencers, recipes are consumed in a different way now. For example, this afternoon, I did not know what I wanted for dinner. Instead of consulting my family recipe book, my Chrissy Teigan cookbook, or just winging it, I used a search engine to google “what to make for dinner mushroom.” I found the recipe below and added the rest of the ingredients to my virtual shopping list I share with my husband. We both made dinner together and he is currently doing the dishes. This experience is much different, more accessible, and highly personalized. 

Food bloggers have significant competition, as most anyone can post any kind of website content without any kind of legitimate credential as long as their content is well-branded and has an audience. There is an expectation that if you are to build a brand, there is a multi-faceted web-presence with a website, social media presence, and high quality photography and well-written content in addition to the recipe. This is much different than the back of the napkin recipe your family may have created and shared with you.

If you want inspiration for dinner tonight, you can google a food-related phrase, watch several shows on a streaming platform of your choice, follow your favorite Instagrammer, blogger, TikToker, or YouTuber, or call your family and ask what they are doing for dinner. The mass amount of information related to cooking has democratized quality cooking in a way that allows anyone to explore any cuisine, assuming they have access to the ingredients. 

Even further, if you have little interest in scouting the internet for a recipe and grocery shopping for the right things, meal delivery services exist to create quality meals and eliminate this entire process. Essentially, depending on your preference, you get to choose how much of the process you want to do yourself without needing to hire a personal chef. This also has allowed a more equal division of labor in the kitchen, recognizing that two-person households (spouses, partners, roommates, etc.) can split up dinner responsibilities according to what works best for both parties. 

While the division of resources has been present throughout history and certainly pervades our lives now, access to a variety of cultural cooking has enhanced the meal experience for countless amateur chefs and allows everyone to be able to cook at their own pace and skill level for their families. 

Further clicking: Best Selling Cookbook from the year you were born 

Also important, I ended up doing a Marsala Sauce (this recipe with extra onion, shallots, and the umami seasoning from Trader Joe’s) along with mushroom ravioli and brussel sprouts in case anyone else is looking for dinner inspiration. 

11 comments

  1. I also think the internet of things will continue to expand into the cooking scene. Toasters already connect to WiFi. But it can expand more into stovetops, individual cooking utensils, and even shopping carts. Maybe these cooking utensils can connect with recipes online, helping you along the way? Or, you can wear glasses that create an AR environment to help you cook? I can see a push for online recipe accounts trying to gain access to the internet of things in the kitchen or a partnership between kitchen appliance companies and tech companies.

  2. This post really made me think of the history of cooking (and cookbooks) from a very different perspective. I can still remember my mom calling my grandma for cooking advice and writing down the ingredients and recepies to then go to the grocery store and buy them. My experience is very different as I google recipes from the food that I currently have in the fridge and cook them. It is crazy to think how fast our world has changed in only one generation and how quickly the food industry is becoming increasingly digitalized.

    1. lol Yana I can remember the same conversations growing up. “how much of this do I use”. Don’t see that happening as much with younger generations

  3. This post reminded me of a docu-series that I enjoy called The Food that Built America which details the history and breakthrough technology behind the largest food brands in the U.S. Unsurprisingly, many of these brands deployed revolutionary technology that gave them competitive advantages, so I wonder what is on the cutting edge today. There is a lot to relate to under the topics of cooking, baking, and food so I hope you continue to post about them.

  4. Digital and food has been a topic that has come up in almost every version of this class I’ve done over the years, but there are countless different angles and it all keeps evolving. Nice continuation of and contribution to that tradition!

  5. Recently, I received a pdf that included copies of my great grandmother’s baking recipe cards. I guess you could call this “digital”….

    In my opinion it is a lot like libraries and museums who are taking on projects to digitalize their archives. There is certainly a value in keeping family traditions alive by passing along recipes from generation to generation. But particularly interesting when it comes to food, is there so much that is not written down. How do we capture this?

  6. It amazes me what you can do with the internet and food now. I also have just thrown some ingredients in google and see what I get for a return. You’d be surprised what you can get results on and I’ve gotten some really good recipes just from a simple google search. Side note: the UMAMI seasoning from Trader Joe’s is down right addicting! As the grandma from Frank’s red hot would say, “I put that **** on everything”

  7. I couldn’t agree more! Food bloggers and platforms such as TikTok, YouTube, Instagram have allowed us to have access to thousands of recipes – ridding us of the cultural barriers around food! Anyone can get their hands on “Authentic” recipes from any culture around the world and experience it in their own kitchen. Its helped globalize food and made us aware of more options out there.

  8. For years, I’ve been using Blue Apron to make lunch and dinner. And honestly, without Blue Apron and Hello Fresh, I would be making hotdogs and spaghetti sandwiches every week. If you never used Blue Apron, they also provide you a mobile that shows you the ingredients and on-demand instructions on making a meal. This is a great post, as it connects with, frankly, how I survive.

  9. The most high-tech kitchen gadget I have is a sous vide cooker that is wi-fi enabled, so you can start it remotely. For those that don’t know, sous vide is a method of cooking where you immerse vaccum sealed food in hot water that is kept at a precise temperature. So getting that big bath of water to come to temperature can take time and so with these latest models you can set it remotely so it can be good to go when get home. The first time I did it I was impressed at how quickly it came to temperature…. until I realized I had screwed up my fahrenheit and celsius!! (there’s always room for human error)

    Overall, I think there’s a great space of opportunity for an in-kitchen service or product to supplement cookbooks. Too often I have my laptop balanced on something and then I’m trying to scroll with sticky hands… maybe it could just be an iPad with some sort of voice assistance enabled? I do like seeing things but I don’t just want to watch a video, so for me it’s being able to read and view and pause and go back and all that — much of which is difficult with a poorly balanced laptop.

    Food preparation is such a great area to mine in terms of culture and memory and story and personality. I’ve had several of my Northeastern Digital Media students create some sort of online virtual cookbook/website as their final projects (and when the class was remote last year, one student even delivered yummy samples to my house!)

  10. Shannon – I loved this post! As an amateur cook myself this made me reflect on my experience in the kitchen and how I leverage technology. While I have collected many cookbooks over time, I rarely consult them for an average weeknight meal. Just as you mentioned, I often times google recipes that include ingredients I already have which makes the cooking experience so much easier. I look to instagram and pinterest to find recipes and find it so helpful when my favorite food bloggers post videos associated with their recipes to show technique. Youtube has made it easy to hone my cutting skills or any other questions I may have while in the kitchen. It is funny to think that every Thanksgiving I used a printed recipe my mom found on the internet and it is dated from November in the 90s. At the time that was cutting edge technology and you can really see how far we have come!

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